We ran the last group class at 204 a year ago.
We knew March 17, 2020, would be the last class for a long time. Despite suggestions that the closure would be for “two weeks to flatten the curve,” we knew it would be much, much longer. And we planned for that when we shut down before the government forced us to.
I’ll be honest: We closed early so we could move fast and get ahead of the inevitable. But I shake my head when I think back to the confusion of the time. I recall some “leading lights” in the gym community suggesting closing immediately and without a plan was “the right thing to do.” It was not, and a lot of businesses suffered needlessly because of that flippant advice.
We closed fast because we had a plan from longtime friend and mentor Chris Cooper. We were online within a day, and we were still coaching members who wanted to train outdoors, in their garages and in their basements. Our coaches contacted each person daily, and we stayed in touch as a group as much as we could through Zoom sessions, online cooking seminars, and wine and whisky nights.
When it was announced that the lockdown was going to be lifted well before its original end date, we made a fast but not unconsidered decision not to reopen our facility. I tend to over-evaluate things, but COVID didn’t leave a lot of time for dithering. We had to act, so we made a choice to change our business dramatically and aggressively.
Just One Bolt…
I remember standing in an empty gym that hadn’t been used in months with a ratchet in my hand. The gym was just how we had left it in mid-March—10 years of evolution frozen in an instant. A light coating of dust—not the usual chalk—covered everything. We could have opened the doors and started coaching in person again with the turn of a key.
I knew that if I removed a single bolt, the dominoes would fall and I’d soon be taking our Jolly Roger flag out of a completely vacant warehouse.
But we saw the reality: The pandemic was going to be with us for a very long time. A few people have asked us how we knew how the last year would play out. We didn’t know for sure, but we had a very good idea based on the advice and experiences of fellow gym owners in countries around the world.
I didn’t stand in the gym for very long before I twisted the first bolt and turned our playground back into a warehouse. It was like dropping a plate and watching it shatter in slow motion. It didn’t feel like reality.
June and July were a blur. I don’t remember much. Mainly, I recall that Crystal and I took the place apart the same way we put it together: head down, shoulder to the wheel. I cried the last time I left the building, and I still feel hollow when I think about the old place and the people who filled it.
But now, a year later, I’m certain closing the warehouse was the right decision for us, though I miss the atmosphere and a lot of great people. The stressful, momentum-destroying stop-start of closing, reopening, re-closing and reopening just wouldn’t have allowed us to serve our valued clients properly with our previous model. It’s very hard to support others when you’re struggling yourself, and we didn’t want to operate while living in fear of more shutdowns and restrictions.
So instead of sitting in the grey area and letting the government decide our fate, we chose to move online and develop a coaching program that would help clients no matter what happened with the pandemic and no matter how long lockdowns last.
And we actually still have a physical space, though it’s much smaller and used for a different style of coaching. As pandemic restrictions allow, we see clients in person by appointment at 485 Berry St., right next door to the old place.
3 Lessons From 2020
When we came up with this plan back in spring of 2020, we knew we couldn’t help all our clients with the new online model. It won’t work for those who only want to train at a gym. But it works very well for the right people, and it allows us to give greatly increased coaching support to a smaller number of people.
I miss the old days with a packed gym full of sweaty, smiley people high-fiving each other. That was a lot of fun. But I still get to hear about basement PRs, 100-lb. weight loss, and all the other things our clients are accomplishing.
I’m also thrilled to see our old friends training outdoors and at great local gyms as restrictions allow. The local community of physical gyms has our unending support, and we wish each one great success in the coming months. When people want to train in person in groups, we’re sending them to you with glowing recommendations.
So, with a year of fully online service under our belts, I’ll give you the top three things we’ve learned.
1. You don’t need a gym or a lot of equipment to get very fit. You just need accountability and a plan from a caring coach. We now know actually joining a gym or traveling to one is a barrier for some people who would train more often if they only had to go downstairs or wanted to train on a dock in Kenora over summer. We’re thrilled to see what these people accomplish every day.
2. Nutrition and fitness are inseparable. This has become more obvious as Crystal coaches more people on food and fitness together. The people who invest in both areas make unbelievable progress and build lifestyles that help them accomplish the most amazing things.
3. Online coaching works. I wouldn’t have believed this three years ago. But now I’ve seen the proof. And when I hear Crystal talk to clients, I understand why it works: Some people want more personalization and contact than you can offer in a group class. The online format is perfect for that, and I love hearing Crystal’s phone go off all day as clients post workout results and send messages through our app.
Garage Days Revisited
As for Crystal and I, we’re really back where we started: Alone in a garage with a pirate flag. We miss the old 204 community a lot, but we’re happy to have a new one online—with more GIFs.
To all our clients, both past and present, thank you for supporting us over the years. To the Berry Street crew, you were a part of something amazing. I have thousands of pictures from those days, and I regularly look through them. You all showed me what strong, driven people are capable of, and I’ll be forever grateful. I still remember the sounds and smells of the old pirate ship, but mostly I remember the smiles. I’ll always cherish those good times spent in your company.
And to all the small business owners who are fighting their way through the pandemic, we wish you all the best. Keep pushing.
Head down, shoulder to the wheel. Better days will come.